An easy winter munro in Glencoe

I’ve had a couple of winters off from winter mountaineering so I chose an easy munro as my first day in Glencoe – I headed up Buachaille Etive Beag as its close to the road, has an easy to navigate path even in the snow and is jokingly referred to as ‘The People’s Munro’ as its so easy to bag. Frankly on Valentine’s Day in school half term it was bound to be crawling with either couple keen to do something adventurous, or school teachers desperate to get away from it all.

I heard someone say that school teachers constituted 90% of a mountain rescue calls this time last year. Is it because they’re so desperate to get away from a classroom of kids that the forget to pay attention, or just so many of them are flocking to the hills for that reason that the odds were never going to be in their favour?

I don’t know the answer but I met 5 teachers today, so the chances were looking good that it wasn’t going to be me sliding down the windslab.

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I can joke, but I’ve made all the mistakes before and suffered the war wounds – twisted knee from not axe arresting when I slipped on concrete hard ice in the Cairngorms 5 years ago. That’s a war wound that makes an appearance every so often, usually when I’m belting it along the fell tops, or worse happily bouncing my way down the windslab in deep snow. But today it’s been fine.

Which was good, as today was a great first day back in Scottish winter.

The walk up Buachaille Etive Beag isn’t hard, just a slog. Even in the snow it’s not too challenging. Though as you reach the main summit of Stob Dubh there’s a narrow bit in the ridge where the wind whips over the top and as it dumps the snow it does so in a graceful curl, which from a distance looks beautiful. From the centre of it, it feels like I’m having my cheeks sandblasted with the blown icy snow, and my buff fills with snot and wet breath as I pull it as far up my face as I can without my glasses fogging up.

But I can’t complain, views from a Scottish hilltop in winter. I’m not sure I’ve had clear skies much even in summer.

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Sunshine on the Ben Lawers Round

The sun was shining, the midges were sleeping and the cloud across the Ben Lawers summit was looking like it would lift. What a perfect day for climbing mountains, it was hard to believe I was in Scotland.

Intending to do all of the 5 munros on the Ben Lawers range I knew it was going to be a long walk with a really dull slog back to the car. As I parked up at 9am at the main car park I was surprised by the number of cars already there and also by the information about the Nature Reserve on the large stones. Enough to distract me from my hike. From the car park the route starts sedately through the Nature Reserve.

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The route up Ben Lawers is a steep climb but simple to navigate as the route is entirely on a path. Compared to the previous day’s bog trot this was a fantastic mountain ridge with brilliant views into both Glen Lyon and to Loch Tay. It’s such a good walk I wasn’t the only one on the way up early in the morning. Crossing the first Munro of Beinn Ghlas I headed into the cloud, and the two German men who’d been behind me, finally caught me up.

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At 1214m Ben Lawers is the 10th highest Munro in Scotland and as such it was a surprise to find the two men who had confidently whizzed passed me up the mountain asking me if they were at the summit. Ok, we were in the cloud and you could argue it’s possible to be unsure, though I think the trig point was a bit of a give away. So I asked them how far they were going.

I was beyond surprised to hear they were on their way back down – not just because they were clearly fit enough to do the full round, but because the reason was they didn’t have a map. Seriously, there’s never an excuse to climb a mountain without a map! I resisted the urge to lecture them.

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A third chap bravely wearing shorts and clearly planning to complete the round before lunch and without breaking a sweat, stopped briefly to check his compass and headed off in the right direction to continue the round. I wasn’t going to bother trying to keep up with him.

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I bimbled across the ridge line to An Stuc, the third Munro and quickly worked out why Steve Kew warns in the Cicerone Munro guide ‘not to get stuck on An Stuc’. Commence jelly legs and bum sliding down the rock face as I descended. My down climbing is never graceful nor without swearing.

Annoyingly An Stuc looks like it has a simple way to ascend from the bottom which isn’t clear from the top. Damn.

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From An Stuc the remaining 2 munros Meall Garbh and Meall Greigh are barely noticeable except the miles which are needed to reach them. So it was lovely to break the trudge by meeting a shepherd and his four gorgeous sheep dogs. What a fantastic job, I mean it would be crap to do it in the typical Scottish sideways rain and but on a clear day, I’m jealous.

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I met at least 6 other walkers on these final tops who were also only doing part of the round. Perhaps I am too addicted to tick lists to consider not doing the whole route- while these final Munros might not have the adventure of An Stuc or the height of Ben Lawers they do have fantastic views.

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As I descended to the track at Lawers Burn I watched the sheep dogs rounding up the sheep, an amazing sight.

The trudge back to my car was long, dull and the sun came out which made it a real slog. The track runs around the side of the mountain and provides a quick route back, but unfortunately stops about half way, leaving the need to work your way around the hillside trying to contour and not lose too much height but also not twist ankles. I was knackered once back at my car. Having made it to the final Munro 4 and a half hours from setting out, it was soul destroying to have 2 hours 45 minutes back to the car. Ugh.

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Bog trotting – munro bagging

I’m not sure I fit the stereotype of the typical Munro bagging, surely they have old 1980s oversized waterproofs in neon colours, big heavy gaiters over old boots, rucksacks you could fit yourself in and doggy determination to walk for miles and miles.

As I stood ankle-deep in the peat bog between Meall Glas and Sgiath Chuil I had to question whether I was, however, crazy. To start with neither of these mountains are significant players in the munro lists (199 and 270 highest out of 283), there is no distinct path across the endless bog between the two and frankly there are nicer munros in the Trossachs – I’d even bagged 2 the day before.

But I was there and even when the sun turned to rain there was no point turning back. I think that statement either marks me as a munro-bagger or just plain mad.

The hike starts out from the A85 in Glen Dochart, parking at Auchessen – a lovely little spot on a surprisingly sunny day.

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As I crossed the river and headed past the cottages I actually thought the walk was going to be a nice uncomplicated affair, a bit off-path, but otherwise not too strenuous and the sun was out. There is even a new track being constructed by the local farmers presumably to provide them with better access to the moors and also making a simpler ascent beyond the houses towards Meall Glas.

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To be honest, the smile on the chap’s face as I passed his JCB digger should have told me everything, and it didn’t take long for me to find myself in a pathless plateau aiming for Meall Glas but wondering if it wasn’t at all easier to give up munro bagging and enjoy dry feet. On the plus side I did see some amazing bog plants as I waded through the peat hags. Ever cloud has a silver lining…. til it rains on you.

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Which of course it then promptly did as I ascended out of the bog and up to Meall Glas summit. So heavy I quickly continued along the fell top. Frankly, after crossing mile after mile of bog I’d like the trig point to be at the top of the right mountain but it sits on neighbouring Beinn Cheathaich. At least it stopped raining. Well, at least long enough for me to sit and eat something.

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Whilst I toyed with the idea of heading straight back to the car to save my feet and my sanity the thought of having to ever cross the peat again to ascend Sgiath Chuil was enough of a motivation. It is after all only about 310m to climb. Oh good the rain is coming my way again.

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At least the descent back down is straight forward and once back down to the main river it’s possible to follow it and eventually a path emerges to follow back down to the track. Even the cows were surprised to see me.

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A wet walk up Ben More and Stob Binnien

Despite the risk of rain I had every intention of getting munros bagged whilst I was camping in Glen Dochart in the Trossachs last week. I had a nice surprise to find my parents had detoured on their travels around Scotland to meet up, but I think Dad was less impressed this meant he would be bagging munros with me.

Ben More is easily accessed from the A85 between Crianlarich and Killin, although this does involve spotting the tiny sign indicating the start of the trail, hidden in the trees.

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The start of the route is following a track uphill as far as a gate, from where you need to cut off and weave your way up the mountainside. It is a grassy ascent for the majority of the way, but with no real path and lovely damp Scottish ground, this makes for a boggy ascent. Dad was even less impressed.

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Its a slow slog to the summit, climbing 874m of the grassy steep slope to the summit at 1174m. As you near the summit a wall appears to the right, marking the edge of the steep drop round the west side, and next to it a path leading to the summit.

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After a quick snack at the summit in the clouds, we continued on to drop down and then ascend Stob Binnein, the second munro of the day.

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No trig point here to mark the summit, but there is a cairn and as the clouds parted we had a fab view of the rest of the ridge.

 

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As we turned around to descend back down to the col it started to rain, making the descent west off the hill, down to the track at Benmore Burn a wet and soggy trudge. I probably added to the misery by cutting off the path and heading directly for the end of the track, but it did mean we saw this happy frog.

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Where the Fife Coastal Path meets the sea

I have to be honest, when my friend suggested walking part of the Fife Coastal Path last weekend my initial reaction wasn’t joy. If I’m going to go walking in Scotland surely it has to include mountains?

Pursuaded by the promise of an amazing chocolate cafe in neighbouring Pittenweem (which is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area), we headed to the coast at Elie.

Beaches are beautiful in Scotland and the Fife coast is idyllic. Having parked up at Elie near the golf course we headed west along the rocky beach towards the cliffs. I’d been warned in advance that the walk would include scrambling and chains, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The chain walk along Elie’s rocky coast is a short via ferrata and while not technically part of the Fife coastal path, for its 0.5km length it is certainly worth the detour from the main route on the cliff tops, which provides a good route back to Elie. A nice short walk before chocolate cake.

Not realising how close we would be to the sea it didn’t cross my mind that checking tide times would be required; we were lucky to have avoided high tide.

The chain walk isn’t difficult and can reasonably be done by anyone who has the nerve to cope with the  heights. Both the descents and ascents have clear places for feet and the chain is big enough to get a really good grip. All you really need is fearlessness as some of the chains are quite vertical and others very close to the water. It did remind me of hiking in Corsica last year.

Once at the other end of the chains, the walk back on the Fife coastal path along the cliff tops is a nice route back to Elie.

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A week in the Cairngorms

I love Scottish winters, endless white snow, ice and summits. What more do you need? DSCF7957 DSCF7960  DSC02545DSCF7972 DSCF7978

Beautiful sunshine across to Carn Lochan from our ascent out of Coire an t-Sneachda.

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Rime ice on the weather station on Cairngorm, battling through the wind to reach it.

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Winter skills are an essential for heading in to the mountains in winter and this includes ice axe techniques and self arrest, as well as digging a snow hole for emergencies. This one is a tight fit!

Fifty Years of Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team

CAMERON McNEISH, Writer & Television Presenter

THE dreadful accident in Glasgow at the weekend has concentrated our minds on the vital work done by our various rescue services and I guess we’re approaching that time of the year when our mountain search and rescue teams are preparing for what could be another busy season.

A while back Willie Anderson, leader of the Cairngorm MRT, mentioned to me that the team was approaching their 50th anniversary and when I mentioned this to Richard Else he thought it would make a great subject for a BBC documentary.

Richard and I were both aware that it’s not easy making films about MR teams. We’ve done it in the past, with varying degrees of success, and it’s very difficult getting that fine line right between sensitivity and voyeurism.

MOUNTAIN RESCUE DVD CoverIn this case I think Richard has done a superb job, particularly in capturing the camaraderie between team members, and in…

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Winter is here – Crampons on icy grass?

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If you look closely at the photo below you will see Ian Kelly wearing crampons on frozen grass on a wonderful mountain Suiliven in the North West of Scotland. A lot of people are amazed that I show this photo, at times frozen grass can be more treacherous than hard frozen snow.

As with any use of crampons one must get used to them in various conditions and I have used them in various searches and rescues especially early on in the winter when the grass is frozen.  It is always worth checking the crampons at the start of the winter and putting them on your boots in a friendly place not for the first time in a raging storm on an icy plateau. Spend a bit of time every year getting to know your tools ice axe and crampons and I would advise always to wear a…

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Asturias – walking in the Somiedo National Park

Having spent an afternoon in the major city in Asturias, Oviedo, we jumped on the bus to Pola de Somiedo for a couple of days of walking.

Having never visited Asturias before I was amazed at how big and beautiful the landscape is and I certainly would recommend Somiedo to everyone. Its quiet and being a national park it is never going to be over developed like some of the towns in the Picos Mountain area.

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Its really easy to get maps from the tourist information office in the centre of the village but you do need to book a taxi to get to the start of the walks, there is only one in the village and he gets very busy. It went against my better judgement to set off on a huge walk with just a leaflet, but the whole area is really well sign posted so its easy to navigate. Having being unable to get a proper map, and having walked in the Alps before I knew a leaflet would do.

Ruta de los Lagos de Saliencia – 23.5 km

Make sure the taxi drives through the village of Valle del Lago and drops you at the start of the path to the Lago del Valle (the lake). Follow this path to were it splits and the signs point to the Ruta de Siliencia which starts to head up the hillside. From here the path is way marked by a white and yellow striped symbol on rocks, make sure you follow these. The map we had confusingly suggested that we needed to zig zag up the hillside, but we trusted the way markers more than the map so we headed along the track a bit further. Eventually we reached another signpost half way up the mountain path.

103 routesWe would eventually walk back here to head across to Lago del Valle, but for now we continued up the mountain pass to Lagos de Saliencia.

A map would have usefully told us how far we would have to walk, as in the 35 degree heat it eventually took us 2 and a half hours to reach the lakes from this point. On the way to the top of the pass there is a water trough with a spring near the top which is useful for filling up bottles. From there, the path heads steadily downhill towards the lakes.

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Compared to the Lago del Valle route which is more popular along the valley bottom, the route to Siliencia is very quiet and once your over the mountain pass it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere.

When you get to the final high point, you need to cut off the main track to the right over a little rocky path to see the most beautiful lake of the 4 in the area – lake Calabazosa. A great spot for a late lunch, since from here you need to head back.

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After lunch we headed back to the top of the pass, filled up our water at the spring, and headed back to the sign. From here we decided to carry on to do the Lago del Valle walk too, so from the sign we continued on – contouring around the mountainside. The path here is narrow and obviously less well walked but otherwise easy to follow.

151 valle de lagosWe were glad to have made the effort to walk to the Lakes of Saliencia as Lago del Valle is big but dammed and with a wide track to its edge it feels a lot less remote. We walked across the dam and headed down the far side through the woodlands.

The path through the woods eventually becomes a track but is a great spot to see the branas, old sheperd huts which have been preserved. It was also great to finally be out of the sunshine.

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The whole walk took us 9 hours and 20 minutes but we did have a long lunch and paddle in the lake.

Avoidance is the best kind of defence against midges

I love Scotland. Massive mountains, endless views, unreliable weather. Big mountain days, playing in the snow and always knowing you might not meet a soul all day.

However, I have to admit that I only visit Scotland before the Summer season, sticking to snowy winters or early spring. I did have the misfortune to have a week in late June in the Cairngorms a couple of years ago, which was pleasant enough until I ventured away from civilization and was promptly eaten by midges. Then it was a battle of stamina v the midge to get high enough up the mountains to be in the wind.

So since then I have planned trips to avoid this, in the last few years sticking to winter alone. We were lucky to have both perfect sunshine and no midges when I visit the Trossachs in May but i guess that’s not quite the heartland midge territory.

However, now I know this website exists I might plan differently – Midge Forecast – I guess its probably about as reliable as weather forecasts and common sense and DEET might still be required, but nevertheless a useful website, (even if it is a promotional tool for anti midge product too).